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The Shame About Shame: If You're Feeling It, You're Not Alone

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Editor's note: We're pleased to present two powerful pieces on mental health in college, one from a student and one from a professional (below). Depression has become all the more common on college campuses, and if you're experiencing it, you're not alone. Please read these pieces and seek help if you need it.

Shame is a normal emotion. It's triggered when we violate, or contemplate violating, our own ideals or the norms of our social group. (Bernie Madoff is an example of someone who may have had too little of this healthy form of shame). But shame is not always particularly nuanced or discerning. It can also be triggered by overly harsh ideals and by unjust norms. (Bernie's son, Mark, who sadly took his own life, may have had too much of this distorted form of shame.)

In cases where it's either too harsh or largely misplaced, shame turns out to be not just one of the biggest causes of emotional problems, but one of the biggest impediments to dealing with them. Shame makes your problems seem bigger and more intractable than they are. And it makes you feel smaller and more alone than you are. Shame makes you bury your head in the sand and pray that either the problem -- or you -- will miraculously disappear. This is especially true in college.

Everyone confronts psychological problems during his or her life. No one is exempt. Wealth, beauty, intelligence, a happy childhood, a good education, good parenting and good genes: none of these things can absolutely protect you against psychological problems. So why do you feel ashamed?

The reasons are ignorance and pride. You feel ashamed about having psychological problems because you believe, wrongly, that no one else is having those problems or, more likely, because you imagine -- again wrongly -- that no one else like you is having those problems. People like you -- strong, smart, successful people -- don't have psychological problems. Only weak, limited, inept people do.

Wrong! Thanks to the brave and beautifully detailed article by Yale student Julia Lurie, we know that strong, smart and successful college students do have psychological problems. And from a survey of over 80,000 university students conducted annually by the American College Health Association, we also know that psychological problems in college are not the exception, they're the rule. In the spring of 2008, for example, the survey found that nine out of ten students felt overwhelmed at least once during the school year, eight out of ten felt very sad, and six out of ten felt hopeless.

Feeling hopeless is no small thing. It's more than "ordinary unhappiness," which, according to Freud, is humankind's normal state. Hopelessness is the state of having reached the limit of your ability to cope -- or believing you've reached the limit of your ability to cope, which, subjectively, is pretty much the same thing.

Going beyond feelings: 32 percent of the students surveyed by the ACHA reported having been diagnosed with depression during the prior school year. And of those with a history of clinical depression, 24.5 percent were in therapy for depression and 35.6 percent were taking medication for depression.

I know that despite these facts, some of you will still feel ashamed of having psychological problems. It won't matter to you whether ten percent or ninety percent of students experience emotional difficulties; it won't be okay for you to experience them.

I respect your stoicism and self-reliance. Not every developmental challenge is a psychological disorder and not every problem needs to be professionally treated. Overcoming adversity, coping with painful emotions: these are the stuff of life -- and of maturation. And yet there is the complicating issue of shame. Shame makes you want to look away from a problem. It makes you feel small and weak and inadequate simply because you're flawed.

Shame is a bigger problem when you're in college than it will be later in life. You don't yet have the worldly experience to know that problems are universal and that acknowledging problems is a sign, not of weakness, but of strength.

And college feels like a fishbowl. You imagine that you're being watched by your classmates and instructors, your parents and their friends, your relatives, your girlfriends, your boyfriends and your eventual employers -- all of whom are expecting you to succeed brilliantly (or, in the case of rivals, secretly hoping for you to fail ignominiously). Even if this were true, which it may be to some degree, most people -- and certainly the people who really matter -- will be rooting for you and will understand that everybody flounders sooner or later. Your parents will come to grips with their own anxieties and disappointments--and your relationship with them will deepen because it will be more real.

Most importantly, since college is the beginning of adulthood, it's a good time to practice caring less about what others think of you and more about what matters to you.

This article has been cross-posted to the College Shrink Blog at Psychology Today.